Suffering does, in fact, have a purpose

Among the most humbling and formative events in my life was standing before an interfaith gathering of seminary students in 2000 to deliver a Christian perspective on theodicy—a word which, in theological circles, references the problem of human suffering. 

First used by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in 1710, the term is actually the name of a subject discipline which sometimes defies human logic because it literally refers to the “justice of God.”  

Since then, Christians have been trying to neatly package ideas concerning the origin of natural and moral evil, to look for reasons as to why suffering seems to befall the innocent, and to discover just where we as a race should point our collective finger when we, our nations, and our world are beset with hardship. 

The question of “why” is only natural in such situations. Why is the worst of humanity seemingly on constant display? Why do so many innocent suffer? Why do the wicked succeed? Why is there COVID-19? Why are there rioters masquerading as lawful protestors and injuring others? Why does the tornado claim the life of the two-year-old and leave his mother sitting in the bathtub where she held him as the storm ripped their home apart? Why? That is the question most ask when they are confronted with inexplicable suffering. 

It so happened the aforementioned interfaith gathering took place on the heels of events considered naturally and morally evil. In August 1999, the Izmit earthquake in Turkey claimed 17,000 lives in a few seconds of horrific shaking. Closer to home, in September 1999, a gunman entered Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, only a few minutes from my house, and opened fire on a youth rally, killing seven—one of whom was my friend and former co-worker. 

Even then, however, those events seemed to pale in comparison to the legacy of suffering shared by many in the room. Most of the rabbinical students, in their late twenties, had either a direct or tangential connection to victims or survivors of the Nazi death camps of Hitler’s Third Reich. The tragedy of the Shoah was deeply impressed upon them, and their response to it was not all that different from that of Elie Wiesel, who wanted to know “where” the merciful God of Abraham was in the death camps. Where was He? 

Fifty-five years of reflection had yet to provide a sufficient answer to these two questions—why and where? And my explanation that suffering can be glorifying of God, educative for his people, probative of the character, and even retributive for the evildoer seemed to fail in offering a better angle on the problem. 

In the end, however, I said I believed my own experiences—in no way equal to those experienced by others—had led me to discover I was guilty of asking the wrong questions when confronted with suffering. The question I should be asking is, “Who?” Who is with me? Who has promised to never leave me? Who is it who gave himself as a ransom for me? Who is that promised me I will be with Him whether in life or death? Who is it who says He works, as Paul wrote, “all things together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to His purpose?”

That was a lesson taught to me by Job, who responded to his accusatory wife, “Shall we accept only good from the Lord, and never trouble?” It was reinforced when, for four chapters and the end of the book, the Almighty compares the thinking of the mortal, finite Job to the immortal, infinite, and unfathomable wisdom of God. 

Lest anyone assume I am ascribing a sin to the one who asks why God allows suffering, rest assured I am not. It is a question God can handle; it is just the wrong question for the Christian to ask. We need not know why, and if we knew why, we would be tempted likely to impugn God’s motives for sending suffering our way or allowing it to come to us. Could what he intends to do with us not be accomplished some other way?

“Who?” That is the only question which makes sense to this Christian. The supreme confidence of faith rooted in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ confirms this for me. If God will not abandon His Holy One to the grave, He will not abandon me. And just as there was purpose in Christ’s suffering and victory in his conquering of sin and death, so the same purpose and victory are evident in the child of God who suffers long-term from cancer, who loses a child in a drowning accident, or whose loved one—in spite of the best efforts to steer them away from trouble—just seems to live a destructive life. 

God is in the midst of all of it, walking beside the saints, comforting those who mourn, encouraging those whose weakness leads to affliction, and promising to be faithful to the oath He has sworn over us since the He first promised to make a people from Abraham’s seed, Christ our Lord.

When we cannot understand, we trust. 

Published: Jul 29, 2020


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